New Matter and Infinite Variety

There have been a spate of articles lately questioning the continual worth of Shakespeare. It’s a media trend that comes around every once in a while, and I suspect the most recent fad for it is related in some way to the UK’s ongoing debate about how much Shakespeare to include in the curriculum. We understand the argument on this side of the pond, too, where Shakespeare, and the humanities in general, are frequent targets for those who believe that STEM subjects are the only ones with intrinsic value. Today’s entry into the conversation is “Is there anything new to say about Shakespeare?” from Michael Reisz at Times Higher Education, an article examining Shakespeare’s role in critical theory throughout the ages, wondering if scholarship has simply exhausted itself on this topic — if we’ve tapped out Shakespeare’s reserves. The article considers several different viewpoints, academic and practical, both from the ivory tower and from the trenches, and it got me thinking: my instinctive reaction to that question, “Is there anything new to say about Shakespeare?” is “Yes, absolutely, and furthermore there will never stop being new things to say about Shakespeare.” But how do I back that up?

Because it’s true: there is a lot of scholarship out there, and it’s been accumulating for a long time. As Reisz’s article points out, a lot of it is outdated, or repetitive, or erroneous, or simply out-of-fashion, yet still, there it all sits, a looming Golgotha of the supposed wisdom of our forefathers and our peers. And, despite being a scholar of Shakespeare, in possession of an advanced degree on the topic, and someone who does devote most of my waking hours to his plays, I am all too aware that the scholarship can, itself, intimidate and put people off the subject. The sheer weight of all that analysis can feel oppressive, impossible to negotiate around — which is why, at the OCS, we put so much emphasis on exploration of the plays themselves. Dramaturgy and critical theory are great tools, but they should be a means, not an end. The scholarship should be there to help, not to terrify.

Perhaps it’s because I’m an educator more than a scholar, really. My focus is primarily on getting students to find things to love in Shakespeare, only secondarily on making my own contributions to the miasma of scholarship (and even when I make the attempt, as I’ll be doing at the upcoming Blackfriars Conference, it’s still with an eye towards improving accessibility). I’m more interested in a student’s personal background than I am in the history of a certain type of critical theory. I can find new ways of hearing Shakespeare’s words by listening to what high school students, without knowing new-historicism from a hole in the ground, deliver and discuss monologues that have personal meaning for them. And I can watch Dr. Ralph, who’s been teaching Shakespeare for forty years, become overwhelmed with glee at finding something new in a passage he’s visited a hundred times.

When will you have learned everything there is to learn from Shakespeare? When you have scanned every line, analyzed every rhetorical device, played every part. And then done it again. When you’ve done it at a different age, in a different location, in front of different audiences who are feeding different emotions back to you. When you’ve done it as a different gender. When you’ve done it as a member of a different race. When you’ve done it as a member of a different economic class. When you’ve done it in a different political climate. When you’ve done it in a prison, in a school cafeteria, in an open field. When you’ve experienced the words of his lovers immediately after having your own heart broken, and immediately before getting married. When you’ve experienced the cares and concerns of his parental figures as a rebellious teenager, as a new parent yourself, while celebrating, while grieving.

My point here is that Shakespeare will never stop having new things to teach us, because we bring ourselves to Shakespeare. As there will always be new people, there will always be new Shakespeare — and no one person is ever going to experience absolutely everything his plays have to offer, though we can (and should) listen to and learn from each others’ experiences. So too do our societal, cultural, and political conditions cast a different reflection on the plays: Julius Caesar plays far differently now than in 1813 or 1613; who knows what it will have to say for us in another twenty, fifty, hundred years? There is no amount of scholarship that can account for all the variables which humanity has to offer.

A way of examining Shakespeare might grow stale, a particular production might be uninspired, but — well, Shakespeare has something to say about that, too. The fault is not in our stars but in ourselves. Someone who hasn’t found something new in Shakespeare — if not new to the world, then at least new to an individual experience — just isn’t trying hard enough, or perhaps just isn’t open enough to the possibility of discovery, in art or in himself. Remove the prescription of Shakespeare as medicinal tonic, which I think so much scholarship can engender in the casual participant or new student, and you get back to joy of what his words help us find in ourselves. All the mountains of literature written about Shakespeare’s plays do nothing to diminish the brilliant flame of a teenage girl discovering for the first time that Beatrice is speaking her language and her heart. I rather think the latter is more beautiful and more valuable than anything you’ll find on JSTOR.

So yes, Virginia, there is something new in Shakespeare — but I can’t tell you what it is, what it might be for you, whoever you are, wherever you come from. I sure hope you’ll find it and tell me about it, though.

Book Review: The Bookman’s Tale, by Charlie Lovett

BookmansTaleThe Bookman’s Tale is the story of Peter, an antiquarian bookseller who, in the midst of grieving for his recently-departed wife, finds what appears to be a Victorian-era watercolor of her, pressed inside an old copy of Edmond Malone’s An Inquiry into the Authenticity of Certain Miscellaneous Papers (the book exposing William Henry Ireland’s forgeries of Shakespearean manuscripts). Though he knows the painting can’t possibly be of his wife, he feels compelled to find out the identity of both painter and subject. Hunting down this information leads him to stumble across an early edition of Robert Greene’s Pandosto, the source material for The Winter’s Tale. While this would be an extraordinary find on its own, what makes this particular book even more astonishing is the marginalia: a series of notes apparently written by Shakespeare as he composed his play. Peter thinks that he may have realized his life-long dream to find evidence proving once and for all that Shakespeare wrote the plays attributed to him, but he knows enough of the history of forgeries to be wary of deception, and so he sets out on a quest to determine the book’s authenticity. He’s not the only one on the trail, however, and people with a lot to lose if Pandosto proves authentic are willing to kill to preserve its secrets.

The book moves along three separate but interrelated storylines: the first set in 1995, when Peter finds the copy of Pandosto and goes on his quest; the second set in the 1980s, when Peter begins his career in rare books at college, and which also charts his relationship with Amanda from their first meeting to its tragic end; and the third spanning from 1592 through the 1870s, tracking the transmission of one copy of Pandosto through time and through the exchange of many hands. The historical plotline delves into the world of playmaking and printing in the 16th and 17th centuries, showing what a cutthroat business it really could be, driven by rivalries, egos, and personal vendettas. Of the three storylines, the least relevant to the driving plot is the 1980s thread — but that is the storyline which gives this book its heart. It’s what makes you care about Peter, and it’s what makes you feel that his quest matters not only scholastically, but personally as well. It also provides a lot of the connective tissue which ultimately ties the loose ends of the story together, because the reader gets to see Peter learn his trade as well as learn to come out of his shell and engage with Amanda’s family and friends.

I received this book from the publisher, in exchange for a review, and I will freely admit that I had a lot of reservations — and I will just as freely admit that they were all, thankfully, rendered irrelevant. I worried this would be yet another Da Vinci Code knockoff, and while I have nothing against that genre of book in general, the quality can be alarmingly varied. I worried it would have an anti-Stratfordian bent, because I have learned to be leery when I see phrases like “prove the truth about Shakespeare’s identity” on book jackets. I worried that the dead-wife angle would make it too maudlin, too Gothic for my personal tastes. I’m very happy to say that, as it turns out, I had nothing to fear on all three counts.

The biggest problem, I think, is that the summary really doesn’t do the book justice. For one thing, it makes it sound like the book is a lot more about the painting and the Victorian angle, when the far greater focus is on textual transmission and the development of the Shakespeare brand through the centuries. It’s also not nearly as mournful in tone as the jacket makes it out to be. Peter is a strong protagonist without needing to be an action hero, and I appreciate him for that. He is, definitely, a scholar and a bookseller, and at no point during the story does he morph into a super-spy or an Indiana Jones. He remains what he is, using his intelligence, his inquisitive nature, and his training in the field of early modern publishing to hunt down the mystery. I also appreciated that Lovett could give us an introverted protagonist with social anxiety problems and still have him be a strong character. Peter struggles a lot, both early in the 1980s storyline and in the 1995 storyline, with social interaction, but the reader gets to see him learn how to deal with that. He finds his safe spaces and safe people. Unfortunately, since Amanda was the one who drew him out to begin with, after her death, he retreats from the world and isolates himself entirely — so a lot of the story isn’t just his quest to find the truth behind Pandosto, it’s about him finding closure with her death and learning to be that more-adjusted version of himself again, even without her. It’s a deeper and more emotionally satisfying angle than I was expecting the book to have, and it strengthens the narrative.

Some of the twists and turns are a little predictable, but that doesn’t bother me much. After all, as Shakespeare so often reminds us, knowing the plot isn’t the same as knowing the story. The Bookman’s Tale is less a fast-paced thriller and more a historical-psychological exploration with a dash of mystery, and I appreciate that Lovett didn’t seem to feel much need to hammer it into another form. The threat of danger towards the end is the only place it gets a little Da Vinci Code-y, but even there, The Bookman’s Tale strains plausibility far less than other books in this genre. There were only a few details throughout which I found far-fetched, such as a professor of Shakespeare at an esteemed university never having heard of Q1 Hamlet (but perhaps, in the 1980s, that could have been true?). The secondary romantic interest felt a little tacked-on and unnecessary. The book definitely would have worked just as well without that aspect, but Lovett also isn’t too heavy-handed about it, so it’s easy to ignore.

I can cheerfully recommend The Bookman’s Tale as a great summer read for any Shakespeare enthusiast, but particularly, I think, for the kind that we get at the Blackfriars Playhouse. There’s more substance here than to your typical novel of this sort, and a lot more “Easter eggs” slipped in for the benefit of readers-in-the-know. I think our scholarly friends will appreciate the attention to detail which Lovett gives the history of textual transmission. The sections set during Shakespeare’s lifetime are full of wonderful details, intriguing cameos, and cheeky off-hand references. Lovett clearly knows his stuff when it comes to the playhouses and the print culture of early modern England. The Bookman’s Tale would actually be a great companion book to Shapiro’s Contested Will, in some ways, because it takes a fictionalized look at the true history of how Shakespeare mania grew over the centuries into a force which spawned forgeries and erroneous theories. It just released this week, so pick it up at your local bricks-and-mortar or on Amazon.

Thanks to the generosity of Viking Press, the OCS will be hosting a giveaway contest, wherein one of our lucky followers will get a free copy of The Bookman’s Tale. We will have details on that giveaway for you in a separate post early next week.

Book Review: ‘Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare?’ by James Shapiro

One of the greatest challenges for a modern historian is to remove the filter of Romanticism and Victoriana when we look backwards through time. Modern society has inherited a lot of inaccurate notions about the pre-Industrial world from our more immediate forebears, creating an assumption that the medieval and early modern worlds shared the same values, the same culture, the same societal structures, the same goals as the Victorian world – an assumption that is, in many ways, far off the mark. To achieve greater understanding of anything early modern, a historian – professional or recreational – must first clear her eyes of the haze which the nineteenth century imposed on them.

Lifting this veil is, to my reading of it, the major triumph of James Shapiro’s Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare?. Both history and historiography, this book examines the case both for and against Shakespeare as the author of the works attributed to his name – and comes down, quite definitively, on the side of Shakespeare. Shapiro notes, in the opening pages of the book, his interest, which lies “not in what people think – which has been stated again and again in unambiguous terms – so much as why thy think it. No doubt my attitude derives from living in a world in which truth is too often seen as relative and in which mainstream media are committed to showing both sides of every story.” Noting the prevalence of opposing viewpoints in modern society – such as those on creationism vs evolution, whether or not man walked on the moon, and “more disturbingly,” those who deny the Holocaust deniers – Shapiro states, “I don’t believe that truth is relative or that there are always two sides to every story. At the same time, I don’t want to draw a naïve comparison between the Shakespeare controversy and any of these other issues. I think it’s a mistake to do so, except insofar as it too turns on underlying assumptions and notions of evidence that cannot be reconciled. Yet unlike some of these other controversies, I think it’s possible to get at why people have come to believe what they believe about Shakespeare’s authorship, and it is partly in the hope of doing so that I have written this book.”

Shapiro begins with the first attempts, in the eighteenth century, to expand knowledge of Shakespeare’s life and works, with George Steevens and Edmund Malone arguing their various perspectives. This idea of construction, of needing to find reasons in Shakespeare’s life for the events and viewpoints in his plays, led to a somewhat desperate search on the parts of Samuel Ireland and his son, William-Henry, for new evidence about Shakespeare’s life. Unfortunately, these gentlemen came to the idea several decades too late; any evidence not already preserved was long gone. William-Henry, motivated in Shapiro’s depiction as somewhat pathetically frantic to bolster his father’s deflated confidence, embarked on an orgy of forgery, creating numerous documents in “Shakespeare’s hand”: deeds, letters, inscriptions, even entire plays. Briefly celebrated, then proved false under William-Henry’s own confession of fraud, these documents nonetheless opened the door to the search for biography in Shakespeare’s plays. Even Malone, who vigorously attacked the Irelands for the fraud, still entertained:

the presumption that Shakespeare could only write about what he had felt or done rather than heard about, read about, borrowed from other writers, or imagined. The floodgates were now open and others would soon urge, based on their own slanted reading of the plays, that Shakespeare must have been a mariner, a soldier, a courtier a countess, and so on. By assuming that Shakespeare had to have experienced something to write about it with such accuracy and force, Malone also, unwittingly, allowed for the opposite to be true: expertise in the self-revealing works that the scant biographical record couldn’t support – his knowledge of falconry, for example, or of seamanship, foreign lands, or the ways that the ruling class behaved – should disqualify Shakespeare as the author of the plays.

Delia Bacon, c. 1853Shapiro also positions these early days of the search for authorship evidence in light of the early attribution studies for the Bible and the works of Homer; for the first time, literary monoliths were subject to question and interrogation. Shapiro then moves through the first seeds of the anti-Stratfordian argument to its full-blown manifestations in the propositions of first Francis Bacon and then Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford, as alternate candidates. The Baconian theory, for instance, began with Delia Bacon (no relation) in the mid-19th century. Shapiro explains how Delia’s ideas about Francis Bacon connected to the notion of a grand conspiracy, focused on the polymath English courtier as the center of a radical proto-republican political movement. The evidence for these claims, she determined, was present in a close reading of the plays as biographical in nature. Shapiro demonstrates how the logic of such an association is inherently flawed, thanks to the limited scope both of Delia’s historical awareness and of the plays which she examined:

The framework within which [Delia Bacon] imagined the world of the English Renaissance, also typical of her day, was limited to monarchs, courtiers, and writers. The rest were written off as ignorant masses. […] It was history from the top down and limited geographically to London and the court. Her Shakespeare canon was no less restricted and also typical of nineteenth-century readers: at the center of it were Hamlet and The Tempest, and it extended to the plays meatiest in philosophical and political content – Othello, Julius Caesar, Lear, Romeo and Juliet, Richard the Second, and, unusually, Coriolanus – but not much further. While she had surely read the other thirty or so plays, as well as the poetry, they didn’t serve her purpose, and for the most part she passed over them in silence.

Delia Bacon published, to moderate success, though most people who supported her initially came to regret it, because of the mental instability she developed following a very public jilting. Shortly after the release of her book, she was institutionalized, and spent the last two years of her life in an asylum. Despite this tragic end, her ideas caught fire in the decades following her death, earning the attention, if not always the outright endorsement, of celebrities including Ralph Waldo Emerson, Mark Twain, Helen Keller, and Henry James. Delia Bacon also introduced the notion of a secret cipher embedded in the texts of the plays, an idea picked up and popularized by Ignatius Donnelley – and an idea risible under even the lightest scrutiny for several reasons, not least of which is that a tweak of the cipher could yield any result the seeker wanted, but also because, as Shapiro points out, “Donnelly didn’t have a clue about how compositors worked in Elizabethan printing houses, where such a scheme would have been unimaginable and the layout he describes impossible to reproduce.”

By the 1920s, however, Shapiro points out that “Philosophy and politics were out, Oedipal desires and mourning for dead fathers in,” giving rise to the new Oxfordian theory. Psychoanalysis imagined a link between the writer of Hamlet and the character of Hamlet, based on repressed sexual urges and dysfunctional family relationships. Sigmund Freud questioned Shakespeare’s identity but did not embrace Bacon as the alternative; John Thomas Looney (pronounced “loany”, despite temptations to the contrary) picked up the psychoanalytic thread and proposed Edward de Vere, the Earl of Oxford. Shakespeare’s life did not mirror the required narrative; the Earl of Oxford’s could, especially if you layered on other theories about de Vere being Queen Elizabeth’s lover and/or son. From a secret political group under Bacon’s direction, the anti-Shakespearean case now rested on a more lurid narrative: a conspiracy tinged with sexual misconduct, succession anxiety, and disrupted inheritance.

For decades, the Oxfordians plagued themselves with divisive conclusions about this reading, however: nobody knew about the conspiracy; everyone knew and didn’t think it worth mentioning; everyone knew but was kept silent by Queen Elizabeth’s totalitarian state; a select group knew and kept it quiet to protect the Queen; and so on. Never mind that Oxford died in 1604, before many of Shakespeare’s plays were written; in the scope of such an all-encompassing conspiracy, Oxfordians find that small matter to explain away. They were written earlier, and released after his death, as a way of perpetuating the myth of William Shakespeare as the front man. Shapiro details how, in more recent years, the Oxfordian theory has gained traction due to the public’s increasing fOCSination with conspiracy theories of all sorts. From moon landings to who shot JFK to the vast circulation of conceptions about secret government involvement in nearly every act of tragedy or terrorism of the past three decades, modern culture has propagated a pervasive suspicion of authority. “In such a climate,” Shapiro says, “a minor act of conspiratorial suppression on the part of Tudor authorities made perfect sense.”

Overall, the impression this book leaves a reader with is that the anti-Shakespearean case is one stuffed with tragic figures and ulterior motives. Its very earliest characters are among the saddest: poor William-Henry Ireland, desperately seeking a father’s approval, and jilted Delia Bacon, who clung to her theories as a way of reclaiming agency over her life, but with a paranoid mania that drove her to madness and death. These are the figures often left out of the Baconian and Oxfordian narratives; they prefer, naturally, to tout the support of such grand figures as Mark Twain and Sigmund Freud. As Shapiro demonstrates, however, the rationale of the great figures is not untainted, either. They all require vast constructs, additions and suppositions to the historical record. Freud’s support of the Oxfordian case is deeply tied to his own theories about Oedipal desire; he had to read Hamlet in terms of Oxford’s own familial-sexual-philosophical entanglements, because to suppose that the story came from any other origin was a strike against the psychological theories on which he made his living and his fame.

Mark Twain's book questioning Shakespeare's identityIt’s Twain’s rationale, and Shapiro’s dissection thereof, that I find most interesting and most telling. Twain echoes Malone in supposing it impossible for a writer to draw from anything but experience; “For Twain, the notion that great writing had to be drawn from life – rather than from what an author heard, read, or simply imagined – was an article of faith, at the heart of his conception of how serious writers worked.” It is, in many ways, a very strange idea, taking imagination so entirely out of the equation, but it was a product of its time; in the 19th and early 20th centuries, more and more writers were publishing memoirs, and biography was a popular genre. The close association between fiction and experience was deeply embedded in the culture, providing fertile ground in which the anti-Shakespearean attitudes could take root. This is one of the more difficult veils to penetrate when looking back at the early modern period through modern eyes – the idea that the early modern writers simply did not view their craft in the same way that the Victorian tradition has convinced us all writers must.

Shapiro asserts that this legacy lives on in writing today, that modern readers retain assumptions that “novels necessarily reveal something about a writer’s life.” I would argue that this is more true in so-called “literary” fiction than it is of genre fiction. Readers of science fiction and fantasy novels (or viewers of those movies) — and to an extent, of mysteries, thrillers, and romances as well — have no more expectation of a creator’s personal experience with the subject matter than Shakespeare’s original audiences had. We need no more assume that Shakespeare had first-hand knowledge of Italy than that George Lucas had of Tatooine, J. R. R. Tolkien of Middle-Earth, or J. K. Rowling of Hogwarts. While “serious” fiction often retains a more autobiographical bent, I think it is in genre fiction that writers operate more like Shakespeare did: indulging freely in the realm of imagination, drawing off of previous stories, history and mythology, and timeless tropes for their inspiration. There you find writers more interested in telling a good story than in talking about themselves – which is not to say that glimpses of a writer’s viewpoint won’t peep through from time to time, but they don’t dominate in the way that post-Romantic assumptions would indicate. (It is in many ways ironic that the very people who disdain the use of imagination in writing are so wonderfully and copiously imaginative themselves, at least when it comes to creating the fantasy narratives necessarily to support alternate authorship candidates).

The final chapter of the book is a tour de force in defense of Shakespeare – though Shapiro acknowledges the absurdity that Shakespeareans should even be on the defensive, that the burden of proof has somehow shifted to us to prove there is no conspiracy, rather than on the Oxfordians to prove that there is. After entertaining the anti-Stratfordians and exposing their flaws, Shapiro comes down unquestionably (and refreshingly unapologetically) on the side of Shakespeare of Stratford:

When asked how I can be so confident that Shakespeare was [the plays’] author, I point to several kinds of evidence. The first is what early printed texts reveal; the second, what writers who knew Shakespeare said about him. Either of these, to my mind, suffices to confirm his authorship – and the stories they tell corroborate each other. All this is reinforced by additional evidence from the closing years of his career, when he began writing for a new kind of playhouse, in a different style, in active collaboration with other writers.

Shapiro then defends Shakespeare with a barrage of real, concrete evidence – text-based evidence including examples of speech prefixes, the process of printing plays, the relationship of typesetting to the variant spellings of Shakespeare’s name, his demonstrated familiarity with actors, and so forth. The proof of such deep association with the playing companies, the theatre building, and the workings of the shareholders effectively eradicates any validity to the presumption that the plays could have been written by someone who did not inhabit that world.

Shapiro also engages with the testimonies of so many of Shakespeare’s contemporaries, identifying the man from Stratford as the man who wrote the plays: George Buc, Master of the Revels; Robert Greene, vitriolic pamphleteer; Francis Meers, whose Palladis Tamia lists all of Shakespeare’s plays which had been acted by 1598; Gabriel Harvey, poetry critic; William Camden, historian; playwrights John Webster, Francis Beaumont, and Thomas Heywood — the list goes on and on, but the trump card is fellow playwright, rival, and friend, Ben Jonson, who “left the most personal and extensive tributes to Shakespeare. For many, his testimony alone resolves any doubts about Shakespeare’s authorship of the plays.” Consider me one of them. Even if we did not have the voluminous other evidence that we do have, Jonson alone would convince me. He comments both so prolifically and so personally on Shakespeare’s writing that I find it a violation of Occam’s Razor to imagine that he was either ignorant or part of a vast conspiracy – and knowing what I know about Jonson, I really can’t believe he could have kept a secret of that magnitude. From Ben Jonson's epitaph to Shakespeare, in the preface of the 1623 First Folio

Finally, Shapiro draws a connection between Shakespeare’s plays and the playing spaces he wrote for, discussing how the space affected what kind of story Shakespeare could tell and how he could tell it, particularly thanks to a distinct change towards the end of his career:

We have also had drummed into us that he was Shakespeare of the Globe – though that playhouse was built only in the closing years of Elizabeth’s reign. Long forgotten are the other playing spaces in and around London in which he had built his reputation over the previous decade: the Theatre, the Curtain, Newington Butts, the Rose, Richmond, Whitehall, perhaps a brief stint at the Swan. … But had you asked anyone on the streets of London in the winter of 1610 where you could go to see Shakespeare’s latest play, there would have been only one answer: ‘Blackfriars.’ The Blackfriars Theatre means little today to most admirers of Shakespeare; so far as I know, only a single replica of it has ever been erected, in rural Virginia, which attracts both spectators and scholars. The story of the Blackfriars Theatre is also the story of the Jacobean Shakespeare, and of the particular challenges he faced toward the end of his playwriting career. And that, in turn, helps explain why only Shakespeare could have written his late plays that were staged there.

Shapiro’s recognition is apt and accurate, and that close relationship between writer and playing space is one we frequently refer to in our educational materials and workshops. A different kind of theatre demanded a different kind of plays, and Shakespeare’s latest works reflect that shift, making a reconstruction of the plays’ timeline to fit a 1604 death date absurd. I hope this spatial connection becomes a stronger part of the narrative of the “controversy” – perhaps it will help the Blackfriars Theatre and its descendent, our Blackfriars Playhouse in Staunton, earn greater recognition as one of Shakespeare’s prominent theatrical homes.

The final chapter of Contested Will ought to hammer home, once and for all, that Shakespeare was Shakespeare, setting the matter entirely to rest. Except, as Shapiro ably points out, there is no arguing with a conspiracy theorist. Any evidence just gets twisted to support the idea of a vast cover-up. Nonetheless, Shapiro’s book is a veritable armory of weapons, both offensive and defensive, for the Shakespearean set. What’s more, he delivers all of his information with felicity and wit; the book is a wonderful read as well as an intellectual triumph. I highly recommend it to anyone with a dog in this fight, as it were, but also to anyone who is simply interested in writing and in how ideas about it have evolved over time. Shapiro provides us not only with a rousing defense of Shakespeare, but also a valuable peek through the veils of time, rolling back our assumptions and laying bare the reality, insofar as it is knowable.

If you’re interested in further thoughts on this topic, please join the OCS on March 31st at 10:30am at the Blackfriars Playhouse. Dr. Ralph Alan Cohen will be delivering a lecture featuring his own dissection of the authorship matter, entitled “Knock, Knock: Who Wrote Shakespeare?”

2012 MLitt/MFA Thesis Festival: Session 1

Good evening, all. Tonight and tomorrow at the Blackfriars Playhouse, twenty-three students from Mary Baldwin College will give presentations on their MLitt and MFA projects. These presentations are a required portion of the thesis project for all candidates. The OCS education team will be live-blogging throughout the both days of the event. The first session runs this evening from 6:30pm-9:30pm.

With his characteristic wit, Dr. Paul Menzer opens by apologizing for scheduling this event during that great Sunday ritual, but reminds us that Downton Abbey re-airs on Thursdays. He also notes the infeasibility of sharing chicken wings and airing misogynistic commercials between presentations.

Amy Bolis: “Color-Conscious Shakespeare: A Dramaturgical Investigation of ‘Othello’ and Its Legacy

Bolis begins by noting that, in Othello, the word “Moor” appears more times than Othello’s actual name; she then moves on to a list of the “contradictory characterizations” of the title character contained within the play. She then probes the “problematic construction of blackness” within the play, questioning what role Othello should hold in modern theatre. The problem, as she notes, is further complicated by the divergent opinions of those in the field; her actors Brittany Fauzer and Katy Mulvaney read from such opinions throughout the presentation. She uses the example of Patrick Stewart’s photo-negative production, but notes that such a production encourages white audiences still to sympathize with the white man, experiencing only the fear of losing their own privilege. She notes that, for the remainder of the presentation, she will focus on Harlem Duet by Djanet Sears.

Harlem Duet is an Americanized prelude to Othello, set in Harlem during the 1990s, with flashbacks linking different moments of black experience in American history. She foregrounds four questions: 1) What is the relationship between non-white theatre practitioners and the Shakespeare canon? 2) Given lack of roles for non-white characters, how can modern companies approach these plays? 3) Where do actors of colours reside within the realm of Shakespeare performance? 4) Given Harlem Duet‘s critique, what is the legacy of Othello?

Fauzer presents a monologue from Harlem Duet by Billie, Othello’s first wife, where she discusses her decision to poison his handkerchief. Through this story, Sears gives the handkerchief a tangible history, positioning it as an heirloom that “holds the ancestry of generations” through slavery and emancipation, rather than as a magical object of ambiguous origin. Fauzer also presents a statement from Sears on the need to integrate the black narrative into the theatrical world. Bolis concludes with the thought that, “Adaptation has allowed for a different dream of Othello,” one that allows for a shifting of the play’s legacy.

David Ashton: “Staging the Censored Text”

Ashton’s presentation explores the question of “How do you stage a censored text?”, focusing on the most obviously altered sections of George Chapman’s 1608 The Conspiracy and Tragedy of Charles Duke of Byron. Actors Amanda Noel Allen and Brian Falbo present an altered scene, where characters report on a conversation involving Queen Elizabeth and French politics. The alternations make the scene noticeably awkward. Ashton suggests that, while theories exist as to the reason for the alteration, none seem plausible. He looked to production history for possible illumination.

Ashton relates his methodology to that of Genevieve Love, exploring the theatrical impact of absences and voids for those early modern plays which have no strong performance record. He posits the notion of “fantasy performances” suggested by those absences, which may be a means of recovering the pre-censored version. Ashton claims that Act Four allows for at least three “fantasy performances” using the extant text as sole source, a fourth informed by historical context, and a fifth from textual criticism. Actors Maxim Overton, Melissa Tolner, Allen, and Falbo present Ashton’s various possibilities.

The fourth version draws from the historical context of the play’s censorship, which Ashton details; Chapman apparently wanted his plays printed and fought for their restoration. Chapman’s history suggests that he was likely involved in the printing of the plays, often overlooking proofs before they went to print, and that he thus authorized leaving the 1625 reprint unchanged from the 1608. Moreover, Ashton posits that statements from Chapman suggest that he believed readers could fill in the gaps on their own, that “a reader’s mind is capable of imagining moments of theatrical effect.” This fourth version of the scene, then, is a conflation of the extant texts with what Chapman assumed his readers could fill in, the shade of an original performance. Ashton’s suggested fifth version takes critical context into account, a methodology he believes most likely as a way to “stage the censored text”, an exercise both in edition and creation.

Elizabeth Lodato: “From Alehouse to Household: Women in Service in Early Modern Drama”

Lodato begins by having the audience close their eyes and imagine being in a 16th-century alehouse; she suggests that we, as she would have months earlier, probably conjured a romanticized vision of a warm, happy tavern populated with cheerful folk. The reality, she notes, was somewhat darker, as alehouses were often dens of criminal behavior, including prostitution, money-lending, thievery, and fugitive-harboring. She then posits that alewives suffered more complaints and condemnation because of the economic threat they posed to working men, suggesting considerably anxiety about a female-dominated trade.

Lodato’s presentation examines depictions of alewives in both dramatic and non-dramatic literature, with the aid of actors Stephanie Tschetter, Angelina LaBarre, and Elizabeth Rentfro. The popular depictions, Lodato argues, grossly dominated over the actual faults of the trade, often along themes of uncleanliness. She notes the odd juxtaposition of positive statements on an alewife’s congeniality and sociability with the insults regarding unsanitary brewing conditions and dishonesty of practice. She then moves to noting the difference in depiction of alewives in early modern plays, where the women are less often gross caricatures of slovenliness, and more amiable comedic characters, “full of malaprops and earnest”. She suggests that the plays present male hosts as far more dishonest characters than their female counterparts. Lodato pulls examples from the anonymous Every Woman in Her Humour and Heywood’s Fair Maid of the West. The latter particularly displays a virtuous woman defending her reputation against bullies and cheats. Lodato finished by summarizing the sexist depiction of alewives in popular literature and its connection to male anxiety over female independence, and her desire to further investigate the evolved role those characters hold in early modern theatre.

Kimberly Lenz: “‘What’s in a Name?’: Proper Name as Performance Clue”

Lenz opens by commenting on the attraction of the idea of demonic possession in the entertainment industry. She relates the idea of the power of a proper name to expel a demon to the notion of characters in a play using a proper name to exercise power over another character. She uses The Maid’s Tragedy as her example, noticing the frequency with which other characters use Amintor’s name, particularly by those characters who are manipulating his fate. Lenz notes that there seemed to be an epidemic of demonic possession and exorcism in England in the 16th and 17th century. Some men won great fame as exorcists, though often fell from grace and were exposed as frauds; popular awareness of the phenomenon found its way into plays such as The Devil is an Ass (scenes presented by James Byers, Mel Johnson, Joshua Brown, and Justine Mackey).

Lenz describes that her project aims to explore the applicability of the idea of the power exercised through use of proper names. She admits that the results are in no way quantifiable, but that they are nonetheless valuable. Her actors present an exploration of a scene from King Lear. Lenz notes that she is developing rehearsal techniques based around this idea and intends to explore the idea further.

AJ Sclafani: “Distancing Techniques in Modern Early Modern Playhouses”

The presentation opens with the inimitable Dane Leasure giving a version of the traditional pre-show Playhouse-opening speech, Maria Hart giving out tickets for a raffle, and Dan Stott giving the actor’s pre-show speech on our staging conditions. Jessica Schiermeister then enters in an approximation of Sclafani’s sartorial style and takes the podium. Sclafani eventually reclaims the stage and notes that his project looks at the paratextual material of the Blackfriars Playhouse.

He discusses how some of the paratextual material, such as the posters for the shows, emphasizes to the audience that they are about to see actors in a play. He suggests that posters containing the actors’ faces, actors’ names, photographer’s name, and title of the play, but not the name of character portrayed, leads the audience to focus on matters other than the actor’s representation of the role. He moves on to the pre-show speech, which he states positions the audience as an observer of the customs of the Playhouse. He notes that some aspects of the pre-show have become vestigial, while others (asking for donations and asking audience members to turn off cell phones) has reversed the effect of the speech, originally designed to integrate unfamiliar audiences into the unique conditions of OCS productions. He argues that, especially in the context of “problem” plays, distancing techniques transfer the creation of synthesis onto the audience.

Monica Cross: “Modern Adaptations of ‘Hamlet'”

Cross begins by noting the proliferation of adaptations in the MLitt/MFA program within the past few years, and declares her intent to examine how adaptations comment on their source material. She looks at several adaptations of Hamlet from the 1990s and 2000s: Fortinbras, by Lee Blessing (1992), Claudius, by Ken Gass (1993), Something’s Rotten, by Michael Burdick (2003), and 12 Ophelias (a play with brokensongs), by Caridad Svich (2004). She focuses in this presentation on Fortinbras and Something’s Rotten (with scenes presented by Clara Giebel, Linden Kueck, Celi Oliveto, Stephan Pietrowski, and Shane Sczepankowski), the latter of which was presented in a one-act version at the 2011 Blackfriars Conference.

Something’s Rotten follows the reactions of the the gravediggers to the play and its aftermath, taking fragments from Hamlet‘s language. Shifting the focus from court life to commoners “breaks the Aristotelian model”, particularly with such prominent speeches as “To be or not to be”. Burdick’s reimagining breaks the concept down into ideas of being an aggressor or being a victim, as represented by the two gravediggers’ divergent opinions. It also examines the concept of different kinds of death. Fortinbras, by contrast, features the titular character trying “to manipulate the story of Hamlet to suit his own purposes”. This play breaks traditional modes and the fourth wall equally, having characters comment on their own situations. One character actually gets a hold of Shakespeare’s Hamlet and becomes engrossed, suggesting, as Cross notes, that even the characters in the play find the original superior to the adaptation. Cross positions her interest in these plays in particular for what they have to say about the role of adaptation as a form of commentary.

And that’s it for tonight — We’re back at 9:30am tomorrow (Monday, February 6th) for a full day of presentations.

For the rest of the Festival, see further posts:
Session 2
Session 3
Session 4

Blackfriars Conference 2011 – Plenary Session IX

The snow is falling, but the conference continues apace! Undaunted by the precipitation, we’re back for Plenary Session IX, moderated by Marc Connor from Washington and Lee University. I’m Cass, and I’ll be live-blogging from 9am to 10:15am.

Iska Alter, Hofstra University, and William B. Long, independent scholar: “Love’s Labour’s Lost Once, Love’s Labour’s Lost Once Again: What Happens When Plays Move House”

Alter opens by stating that they intend to demonstrate that, in addition to text, actors, costumes, sets, and the other typical components that contribute to a play’s meaning, the theatrical space also contributes to its effect. Long takes over, discussing a theory that Love’s Labour’s Lost is the precursor of the modern “college comedy”, characterizing the King of Navarre and his friends as “frat boys” in a recent Globe production. He notes that critics who saw the production at the Globe and those that saw the production on tour came to the same conclusion, but noticed other discrepancies. Long believes these differences were due to the difference in the space.

Long cites several contributory factors to the different effect in different spaces: the size of the performance space itself, the relationship of actors to audience, and the movement of actors in the space. Long details the space he and Alter saw on tour, a proscenium with a fully-seated audience. Though the stage provided opportunities for the actors to leave the stage and engage with the audience, Long believes that the effect fell flat. At the outdoor Globe, the “complex geometry” allowed for greater audience engagement, with the audience member “shifting and swerving” to keep up with the verbal sparring between characters. He also details the “almost physical equality” between actor and spectator when an actor changed levels, moving from a standing position to a crouching or recumbent position, which would place him on eye-level with the groundlings in the pit.

Alter takes over to discuss the differences created by light and sound, and how those factors contributed to the “raucous and bawdy” atmosphere. The indoor space attempted to emulate sunlight, but Alter felt that the conceit only “reinforced the artificial”. She discusses the difficulties presented by the ambient sounds at the Globe, but suggests that those were less distracting than the reverberations of actors’ voices in the indoor space. She concludes by saying that scholars ought to examine more frequently what happens when a play written for one space moves elsewhere.

Christine Parker, Victor Valley Community College: “Thomas Middleton’s Use of the Gallery Space”

Parker proposes that Middleton uses the gallery to highlight characters who act with moral depravity. She prefaces her consideration with reference to A Game at Chess, a black pawn (representing a corrupt Jesuit) spouts Latin from the upper space, “in an attempt to inflame anti-Catholic sentiment”. She concedes that Middleton does use the gallery for the usual conventional reasons, but that, more often than other early modern playwrights, he uses the space thematically. She cites The Changeling, where corrupt characters often occupy the space; also in The Witch, Women Beware Women. Parker connects this use with a reversal of expectations; corrupt rather than romantic, and elevating characters who would not typically be given status by rank.

She moves back to consideration of A Game at Chess, Middleton’s play which was banned for religious and political reasons, partially for fear it would lead to anti-Catholic riots. She describes several politically controversial scenes which place devious or low-ranked characters in the gallery space. She thinks that the black pawn’s position in the gallery was “an incendiary device”. MBC actors present a short portion of the scene, and Parker states her belief that the intimidating effect of the Latin preached “as though from a puplit” would have been inflammatory in the original performance.

Amy R. Cohen, Randolph College: “Grand Scope and Human Scale: How Size Matters”

Cohen begins by jocularly confessing that she “betrayed her father” by choosing classical studies over early modern, due to the fOCSinating considerations presented by Euripedes. She comments on Aristophanes’s opinion of Euripedes and Euripedes’s response to criticism, also comparing Euripedes’s use of low-status characters to the typically high-status concerns of Aeschylus and Sophocles. She then moves to the practical circumstances of performance space which contribute to a play’s success, comparing the large outdoor Theatre of Dionysos to the small indoor Blackfriars Playhouse. She shows a Greek-style mask, large and thus easily seen,. Cohen cautions that “our actors can look like children, or tadpoles, or bobble-heads”, especially if an outdoor performance moves into an indoor space. She thinks that, in an indoor space, it takes the audience twice as long to begin ignoring the masks in favor of the performance. The size, she thinks, reflects in the characters as well as in the masks, that plays written for an enormous space requires characters “of mythological proportion”, and that those large characters may feel awkward in a smaller indoor space. The smaller space “requires characters on a more human scale, however noble or royal they may be”.

The difference in the spaces leads to the differences in the plays written for them. Cohen also believes that this leads to Shakespeare’s success in mixing high and low characters, “where Euripedes sometimes fails”. The comic characters in Shakespeare “enhance, rather than diminish” the effect, even of deeply tragic plays. She anticipates that further exploration will reveal more about why Greek tragedies are the way they are, how that large scale affects the audience, and how it is successful in an appropriate space. In the “reach out and touch you” scale, she would like to speculate: Whether the size of the theatre is one of the circumstances of performance that allowed for the inclusion of low-status characters even in tragedy. She finishes by admonishing that early modern scholars remember, when discussing how their playwrights improved on the ancients, “that: we’re bigger than you.”

Jennifer Low, Florida Atlantic University: “Perspective and Painterly Technique in Jacobean Staging”

Low presents an aspect of art history relevant to early modern staging, first noting the visual parameters of an indoor space like the Blackfriars Playhouse. She posits that Dutch painting of the period was appropriate for use of the discovery space, as the techniques of Dutch painting used same frames, perspectives, and architectural settings which have a similar effect as that the audience experiences in an indoor early modern theatre. She speculates on the visual pictures created by scenes in The Changeling, discussing the delayed revelation of the visual, which augments both the audience’s anticipation and their shock. MBC actors present the crucial scene of Beatrice-Johanna’s mutiliation and death in two different ways: entering through the stage right door, or revealed through the discovery space.

Low argues that the tableau is more effective when using the discovery space. This would also provide opportunities for props and set pieces that could have “filled out” the image within the discovery space — such as a bed, or a medicine cabinet (to augment the medical and pseudo-medical themes in the play). She posits that Beatrice-Johanna’s revelation is then an invasion into other characters’ attempts to restore rationality and normalcy. Low suggests that the original production tied the emotional experience to the optical experience, which would be stronger with the discovery space staging. The discovery space also offers an opportunity to present different sights in foreground and background (relating again to the Dutch painters’ techniques).

Melissa Aaron, Cal Poly Pomona: “Play It Again, Hal: The 1605 Revival of Henry V

Aaron relates the story of the 1605 revival of Henry V, which had to compete with the spectacles of James’s court and the inventions of Inigo Jones. She positions the play in relationship to the company’s financial state at the time of the first performance and at the time of the revival, arguing that material concerns could very well affect play creation and selection. The turbulent financial state of England at the time encouraged dependence on royal patronage, which led to a different concern: “How do you avoid becoming a fully-owned subsidiary of King, Co.?” Aaron examines the repurposing of plays for both the new space of the Blackfriars Playhouse and for the expansion of royal patronage, using the example that, if you get your hands on a bear suit, you find an excuse to use it (and our in-house bear demonstrates). Playing companies were also affected by new outbreaks of plague from 1603-1609; playhouse closures also enhanced dependence on the king’s beneficence.

Aaron then traces the fortunes of the King’s Men from 1603 to 1605, both the closures of the theatre and the court performances and attentant payments given by the king. She notes that Othello and Macbeth were written in this period, and also that The Merry Wives of Windsor seemed to be a favorite for royal performances. She suggests that, by the Christmas season 1605, the King’s Men desperately needed a new play that Queen Anne had not yet seen. Henry V, with its dependence on imagination over theatrical spectacle, performed on January 7, follows a day after the performance of The Masque of Blackness, an elaborate spectacle. Aaron speculates that the King’s Men were reducing, reusing, and recycling, using plays that had originally been in the same seasons together, economizing even in the face of Jonesian competition. The acquisition of the Blackfriars Playhouse allowed the King’s Men to go back to a more independent company, less directly attached to royal patronage.

Peter Kanelos, Loyola University Chicago: “Ghost in the Machine?”

Kanelos interrogates why we, late-modern, have the originalist impulse to gather in an early modern space and re-create early modern productions. He wonders if it’s a romantic impulse, a nostalgic fit — then suggests the opposite, that “this enterprise, while it appears retrograde, is actually an intently post-modern one”. He traces the impulse back to William Pole in the late 19th-century, who aimed to correct misconceptions about Elizabethan stagecraft that had developed over the past centuries. Kanelos positions this idea in relationship to Stanislavski’s theories of acting, developing at the same time and, Kanelos argues, stemming from the same conditions and desires. He discusses the period’s concerns with authenticity and the inwardness of character. “For all three, language and action are opaque, in need of literary analysis.” It was the actor’s duty to probe beneath the language for the true meaning. The 20th century, he says, created a widening gulf between artistic performance and academic analysis.

Kanelos then discusses how the post-modern ideas relate more to what seems true of the early modern plays: that there is nothing beneat the surface of the text, that everything about the character is there, in the words. “Early modern theatre created the illusion of inwardness.” He says that we have reached an opposite of Stanislavski’s principles.

Kanelos is then cut off by the bear, complete with a bear cub.

Blackfriars Conference 2011 – Plenary Session VII

This is Cass Morris, back yet again, this time for Plenary Session VII, moderated by Janna Segal, newest addition to the teaching team at Mary Baldwin College’s MLitt/MFA graduate program. I’ll be blogging from 1:00pm to 2:15pm.

Perhaps unsurprisingly for a session involving technology, held in a re-construction of a sixteenth century theatre, the session starts a bit late due to technical difficulties.

Denise A Walen, Vassar College: “The Performance History of Rhetorical Strategies in 3.4 Much Ado about Nothing

Walen prefaces Much Ado as an unusual play, in that it features two scenes comprised entirely of female characters. In one of those, 3.4, the women prepare for Hero’s marriage. Walen notes that this scene is often reduced or cut entirely from production. As early as 1674, “revised” prints of the play excised nearly half of the scene. Walen argues that “a sense of prudish propriety” led to the elimination of the bawdy jokes in the scene. Walen shares visuals of the scene not only as printed, but as manually adjusted for performance by actors or in promptbooks, with much of the scene crossed out. Towards the end of the production history, Walen notes that Kenneth Brannaugh shot the scene for his 1993 movie, but ultimately left it on the cutting room floor, dismissing it as “too frustrating”.

Walen argues that both the length and the placement of the scene indicate its importance. The scene of innocence, where Hero is ignorant of the forces working against her, augments the tragedy of Claudio’s rejection. The scene also shows Hero exhibiting some interesting characteristics, contradictory to her public persona of meek, dutiful daughter. The scene also helps recuperate Margaret’s character, demonstrating that she has no malice and that her part in the plot is, as Leonato later notes, unintentional. Walen suggests that the scene is most revelatory about Beatrice, showing a more vulnerable side of her character — engaging the audience on her behalf just before the key turning point with Benedick in the church.

Walen walks briefly through the pathos, ethos, and logos of the scene, linking its importance to its rhetorical function. “Shakespeare makes its rhetorical construct essential to the female characters.”

Nathan Jerkins, Penfold Theatre Company / Hidden Room Theatre: “Frame Characters: An Actor’s Approach to the Original Practices Movement”

Jerkins wonders aloud “What am I doing here?” — specifying that he asks that, not for lack of enjoyment, but in astonishment at himself for presenting at an academic conference. He thanks the OCS and the conference attendees for being willing to let an actor take part in the conversation.

He points out that modern actors cannot approach original practices entirely devoid of modern techniques and training, and wonders how we can take those necessarily modern actors and apply them to early modern plays and methods. He thinks the answer may lie in the “frame character”, as in the Induction of The Taming of the Shrew. He thinks, rather than trying to ingrain our modern actors with anachronistic sensibilities, that we should take advantage of actors’ extant strengths. He suggests the idea of a creating a “frame” character who can guide an actor through discovering a role. He thinks this would also circumvent the stresses involved in needing a “dramaturgical referee” to pull directors and actors back when they have “gone too far astray”.

Andrew Phillips-Blasenak, Ohio State University: “The Materiality of Shakespeare’s Companies”

Phillips-Blasenak examines some of the successes of early-modern-style acting companies, including the ensemble and repertory setups. He suggests that, while this style may be enjoyable for an actor, it also presents problems for an actor’s career, as the prolonged nature of repertory and ensemble work. It encourages innovation in company structure and performance space, but . He will look at how Michael Boyd of the Royal Shakespeare Company attempted to navigate these problems, both in building the actor-audience relationship and in creating a sensible ensemble in the company, especially in regard to the reinvention of the material and physical space.

Phillips-Blasenak looks at the structure of the RSC as a company, where the personnel of the company did not change when the space did. The actors who come in, then, though working with directors who were new to them, were thus working with directors who did not necessarily use the new space in a way that augmented the actor-audience relationship. Phillips-Blasenak gives examples from two past performances which he believes were alienating, rather than engaging. Boyd has also instituted a policy of hiring actors for 2.5 year contracts, with the aim of building a consistent ensemble. Phillips-Blasenak particularly examines this practice in the recent history cycle completion project. “The company was able to adapt and work as an ensemble as they adapted to a variety of roles.” The following year, hiring the directors first and then the actors led to an experience that appeared to be confusing and frustrating for the actors, as the directors could ask wildly different things of the actors. The ensemble nature also broke down, with certain actors getting nearly all lead roles and others only supporting roles — for, Phillips-Blasenak stresses again, two and a half years.

Phillips-Blasenak then runs through an overview of the OCS’s style of ensemble-building, audience engagement, and rotating repertory. This structure “provides many of the material challenges that fulfill the goals of Michael Boyd’s intentions.” Phillips-Blasenak suggests that this is more satisfying for the actors, and may be the reason why OCS actors are more willing to return to this company rather than take their skills elsewhere.

Megan Lloyd, King’s College, and Beth Brown, University of Rio Grande: “‘Is this a dagger which I see before me?’: Choreographing Props on the Early Modern Stage”

Lloyd begins by interrogating the tangibility and necessity of props in early modern plays. She uses examples first from ‘Pyramus and Thisbe” to show that Quince is concerned with the material issues behind stage performance. Lloyd suggests that today we, like Quince, are concerned with stage authenticity — and she gives examples from particularly spectacular Shakespearean performances. The early modern stage, on the other hand, relied on the imagination, not just for sets, but for props as well. Lloyd wonders if, today, we use props that the early modern audience did not see or expect to see, suggesting that our modern concern with realism may lead us to consider some props essential. James Keegan and Miriam Donald Burrows present two scenes from The Tempest to illustrate the questionable necessity of Prospero’s iconic staff. On the second run, the actors perform without the staff. While it may help the actor conjure magic, illustrate age, or otherwise demonstrate character, Lloyd argues that the text does not require it; the text does not even mention it until the very end of the play. Lloyd believes that “a staff gets in the way” of Prospero’s emotions.

Brown considers the necessary props for Hamlet, giving the example of the trail of actors who must handle the cup that ultimately poisons Gertrude. She highlights the necessity of thinking about who must handle any prop that appears on-stage. Ben Curns and Miriam demonstrate “what happens when Ophelia has too much to handle”. Miriam attempts to negotiate letters, books, and a small box, which she has to half-juggle. The second run shows “an unencumbered Ophelia”.

Sid Ray, Pace University: “Sticky Shakespeare: Testing Action as Eloquence”

Ray examines “stage business: the unscripted activities of an actor for effect”. She positions the popularity of the term and action in the 20th century, derived from improvisational theatre. She gives an example of Patrick Stewart’s Macbeth assembling a sandwich while giving instructions to the murderers — illustrating the difference between the character’s humanity and his growing monstrosity. She also mentions Ian McKellen’s Richard III performing all activities one-handed, drawn from clues in historical references and in the text. Both examples, Ray argues, convey more information to the audience about the character. Ray draws a line between stage business and “schtick”, which she categorizes as distracting, unnecessary, and without character revelation or illumination.

She suggests that Shakespeare’s plays indicate need for stage business, even though the term was not popularized until much later. One of the best examples is Lady Macbeth’s hand-rubbing, which has no stage direction, but is implicit in the gentlewoman’s dialogue. During the Restoration, actors may have developed “schtick” which then got passed down to the next actor inheriting the role. Ray believes that stage business has become risky business, particularly with determining whether or not an action is justified, as well as determining “how much is too much”.

Ben Curns and James Keegan perform an expository scene from The Winter’s Tale twice, once in a reserved style, second with more stage business spectacle. In the first, they simply sit at the edge of the stage to talk. In the second, they unpack a breakfast of Golden Grahams (complete with milk) and proceed to eat it while they talk. While it does give Camillo a physical reason for “Beseech you” — asking for the milk — it also slows the actors down and somewhat distracts from the words. Ray notes that she left the choice of stage business to Ben and James; they rejected wrestling, rolling cigarettes, or playing cards. Ray asks, whether or not we enjoyed the first or second version better, that teachers consider using stage business in classrooms as a way of interrogating the needs of a scene.

Jeremy Lopez, University of Toronto: “All the Fletcher Plays”

Lopez suggests that it’s difficult to see the Fletcher canon, especially in conjunction with his many collaborators, “as a jungle, rather than as so many terrifying trees”. He breaks them down by titles: those titled for women (such as The Island Princess), those titled for men (such as The Noble Gentleman), those titled with proper names (such as Sir John van Olden Barnavelt), possessively titled plays (such as The Maid’s Tragedy), idiomatically titled plays (such as A King and No King), plays titled for places (such as The Laws of Candy), with specific examples of plot from each category.

Lopez categorizes the plays as at once familiar and strange, with a combined sense of recollection and insubstance. He looks at several of the plays which may help determine “what is not a Fletcher play, and what is”. He finishes with a claim that the Fletcher plays “preserve traces of what they might otherwise have been, or what they might otherwise have liked to be.”

Spring 2011 MLitt/MFA Thesis Festival – Session 3

We return for the third and final session of the Spring 2011 Thesis Festival.

Characters Performing for Characters in the Plays of Philip Massinger, by Brian Falbo (MLitt candidate)

Brian begins with a quick introduction to The Roman Actor and the scene presented by Katie Crandol, Elizabeth Rentfro, and Liz Lodato. Brian then states that he divides performance-within-plays into two major categories: frame performance (plays, masques, religious ceremonies, and legal proceedings) and natural performance (deceit, manipulation, disguise). The Roman Actor contains examples of both types, often layered upon each other. He also distinguishes the on-stage, in-play, scripted audience from the in-theatre audience (who, he notes apologetically, matters less for the purposes of his thesis). In The Roman Actor, the eponymous actor, Paris, presents an idealized version of theatre, with the ability to instruct virtue. Brian then looks at the arbitrary political executions and murders of retribution, relating them to the frame devices and examining Domitian’s use of theatre as thought-control on his audience. Domitian’s attempts fail entirely, because “theatre is suggestion and not thought-control,” and Domitian has to resort repeatedly to his only real power – that of life and death over his subjects, executing those who displease him by failing to get the message of the performance. After Massinger displays Domitian’s failure three times, he moves to the Empress, whose failure is different in that “she attempts to make the theatre conform to her life,” to the extent that she genuinely fears the death of the actor in whom she is interested; the Empress is incapable of separating role from actor. The blurred lines culminate when, during another performance, Domitian takes a role and then uses a real weapon and kills the actor Paris. In Paris, Domitia, and Domitian, Massinger presents three extremes of theatre, all of which critically fail, suggesting that “a compromise of all three viewpoints is a possible” reconciliation — though Massinger does not suggest how to go about finding that middle ground. Brian suggests that this play, Massinger’s first as a house playwright, may be Massinger’s “manifesto,” a demonstration of three extremes of theatre which he vows not to stray too near to.

“Perchance to Dream”: Shakespeare’s Dream Imagery within Early Modern Dream Culture, by Melissa Tolner (MLitt candidate)

Melissa begins by introducing the concept of dreams, in personal, scientific, and historical terms. She cites several sources for dreamlore in early modern England: Greek and Roman sources, medieval English folklore, and religious texts. She also notes the overlap of dream symbolism with sympathetic magic and the occult. Additionally, she covers the history of publications of books on dreams and dream interpretation in the 16th century, which included such strange notations such as “if one ate lettuce in one’s dream, death would follow.” Melissa suggests that dreams on stage bridge the gap between realistic story and overt allegory. She examines dreams within Richard III, beginning with Clarence’s dire premonition (presented by Bobby Byers and AJ Sclafani), full of macabre imagery, designed to move audience sympathies to align with Clarence. In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Melissa examines Shakespeare’s inheritance of themes from medieval traditions and Chaucer’s, with Nick Bottom’s dream speech presented by Angelina LaBarre. Melissa also notes that A Midsummer Night’s Dream contains only a single actual dream — Hermia’s nightmare in Act Two (which Angelina also presents). Melissa then moves to Romeo and Juliet and Mercutio’s speech about “the fairy’s midwife,” better known as the Queen Mab speech (presented by Elizabeth Rentfro and AJ). She compares this discussion with Romeo’s description of his ironically optimistic dream in 5.1, where the audience witnesses Romeo analyze his own dream. Melissa concludes by commenting on the point of intersection between Shakespeare’s audience and our own as the key place for finding the transcendent meaning of dreams on the stage.

“I told you, if those should holde their peace, the stones would cry”: Drama and the Emergence of a Caroline Culture of Censorship, by David Ashton (MLitt candidate)

David begins by reminding us of the dates of the Caroline reign (1625-1649, Charles I’s beheading) and of Carolina drama (1625-1642, the closing of the theatres). He then introduces his focus: what did playwrights have to say about censorship and how did they contend with it? As a point of reference, James I exercised censorship twice as often as Elizabeth had, but Charles I exercised censorship five times as much as his father. David details the various (and numerous) institutions which Charles directed or constructed to deal with matters of censorship. He then contrasts these methods with the actions of Parliament over the authority of the King, first banning playing on Sundays in 1641, then closing the theatres entirely in 1642. David introduces the scholarship of Annabel Patterson, who focused on the idea of examining “functional ambiguity” within early modern drama. He then shares his working definition of censorship. David then moves into looking at specific hearings on censorship of printed works and the 1000-page polemic against theatre, Histriomastix, written by William Prynne, for which Prynne was tried in Star Chamber for slander and libel against the King and his people. David identifies this trial (late 1632-early 1634) and its judgment as the turning point for censorial efforts in the Caroline era. Prynne’s downfall found its way into several plays of the period, as playwrights enjoyed themselves at his expense, and James Shirley, who went on the attack against Prynne, rose to a prominent position in court. David notes that this sequence of events shows that the theatre was not always at odds with the censorial authorities, but sometimes benefited from their actions. David concludes by linking these events to the idea of a “culture of censorship” in the Caroline era.

What a marathon of a day it’s been — Congratulations to all of the presenters for their fine work!

(Read more from Session 1 and Session 2).